Monday, March 30, 2009

As Bread or as Sprout

John 12:20-33 is the Gospel for the 5th Sunday in Lent

Something fresh is stirring when those Greeks approach Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip, one of the twelve disciples who, we have every reason to think, were Jewish, has also a Greek name. It’s no accident that these pilgrims approach Jesus through Philip. They look at him and think, ‘My people.’

Their approach seems to be a signal to Jesus that he is soon to pay the cost of his own discipleship to God. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” As we’re told in the final verse of our portion today, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

What kind of death? One that benefits all of humanity. With the approach of these Greeks, we are meant to hear, and to imagine Jesus hearing, the globalization of his mission on earth. Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus from the backwater region of Galilee, reveals his universal calling to restore to unity with God all mankind.

I expect these Greeks are still within earshot when Jesus goes on to preach his sermon about death. One reason I think that is the one-sentence synopsis we’re given sounds as if it had been drafted to appeal to a Greek mind shaped by Greek philosophy and religion. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

How practical. To fulfill its maker’s purpose, a grain of wheat has one of two callings: to be ground into flour and made into bread, or to be sown in the earth as seed to ensure another harvest.

Think of that as a commentary on discipleship. If you have sat with Thomas Mikelson at any of our Lenten sessions, you have keen examples in mind. German Resistance pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, America’s prophet of nonviolence, Martin Luther King, Jr., El Salvador’s champion of the poor, Oscar Romero. In our final session today, we will consider what the cost of discipleship means to us. Our Lord’s sermon to the Greeks today makes plain a difficult lesson we’ve learned in the Lenten series: Disciples are disposable.

That may seem an odd way to put it, and perhaps it would be better, in our greening age, to say that disciples are recyclable. But our Lord’s little sermon is about death, isn’t it? So let’s not shrink from that.

He’s giving notice to the world that whoever follows him will have a higher concern and a deeper passion than self-satisfaction, personal comfort, lifetime security, and individual piety. The one who made us, the one who is redeeming all of life, has given us a calling. In order to fulfill our maker’s purpose, we will allow our substance to become bread for the hungry, and our spirit to be invested in the forming of new generations of disciples who will fulfill the mind of God on earth.

In his sermon, Jesus observes that a grain of wheat must die and rise, one way or another (either as bread or as sprout), and either way “it bears much fruit.” The commentator says that “fruit” is Gospel-writer John’s favorite term for the life of the community of faith. “Trust me on this,” she says; this bearing of fruit is evidence that the transforming power of Jesus’s death resides in the community, shapes the community, shows itself in how the community lives.

That works for me. The Church has two purposes, two ways of bearing fruit. One is to go beneath the millstone, ground into wheat, to rise as bread for the hungry. The other is to go into the soil as seed that must fall apart in order to sprout and create a new harvest.

Shall we cancel all church activities that do not fulfill one purpose or the other? Is this too extreme? Too much to ask?

To fulfill the purposes of the one who made us, the one who is redeeming all, reconciling all, hadn’t we better make sure that all we do in the community of faith serves one purpose or the other? In a day when churches are folding and closing and dying at an alarming rate, why not make every effort to die the right way, die his kind of death? Not death by attrition, or death by lack of vision, but to live that we bear fruit.

I doubt I’ve ever brought Erma Bombeck into the pulpit with me before, but today’s the day: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’”

Jesus’s little sermon to the Greeks is a primer to the mystery of the Good News. He tells them that they must come to him through his death. They wish to see him? To follow him? He must wean them from their Greek idealism, their expectation that they may come to him through his words, his teaching, his message, as a journey of the mind, without getting their hands dirty or their feet wet. But he is not offering them an agreeable philosophy. He is calling them to a challenging life.

One comes to Jesus through his death. Today’s portion of John’s Gospel sets us on the way of the cross. One week from today we will wave palm branches at the gates of Jerusalem and rehearse the passion of Jesus Christ, and in the week that follows we will see how close we can draw to his death. We will walk the stations, we will let him wash our feet, we’ll stay with him on the Friday he makes good by becoming both the bread and the seed, and in the darkness of the Easter Vigil we’ll hear how the way of the cross fulfills the mind of our maker and see split-open the night of the soul by the spilling-out of unquenchable light.

That all this will happen, that the community will pour such effort into making clear the path and celebrating the love and preparing for the joy, is because we come to Jesus through his death. We are to die with him daily to the ways of the world, having placed our trust in him as way and truth and life. Lent and Holy Week are the Church’s global positioning device, pointing us to our purpose, guiding the community to die the right deaths that will bear fruit, drawing each of us to lay down the burdens that could be for us the wrong deaths, equipping each of us to bear and share those burdens that must be ours because they are also his.

Then Easter Day will come. As in our Gospel today, many visitors will fill the temple to observe the festival. A variety of motives will bring them here. Whatever those are, we’ll welcome a crowd at least twice our normal size.

I urge you to join me in going out of our way to greet all whose faces are not familiar to us. And keep an ear open. Some may wish to see Jesus.

It may seem anticlimactic by then, but the purpose of our liturgy on Easter Day will be to present the ancient and original truth, that we come to Jesus through his death, and in his community we are called to bear fruit, allowing our substance to become bread for the world, and our spirit to shape the future.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lift High the Cross

“The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable manna.’” It may be from heaven, but every day it’s the same: Monday, manna. Tuesday, manna. Wednesday? More manna….

And it was “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people…”

This is the final murmuring story, the last of several in Israel’s long wilderness journey from Sinai to the fertile Plains of Moab. Every so often, the people would complain, Moses would rush to intercede for them, and God would choose not to punish them. Until this final incident, when, it appears, God had had it.

The Hebrew word that we find translated “poisonous serpents” is “seraphim.”

Wait. Aren’t the seraphim good guys? Don’t we sing about “seraphim and cherubim” as angelic beings?

I’m no Hebrew scholar, but I read that “seraphim” comes from a verb meaning “to burn”. On the one hand, that could mean burn like a sting, and on the other “burn away” as if to purify. Sure enough: these snakes are not altogether what they seem. They are agents of God’s punishment, and agents of God’s healing power.

What kind of healing is needed by murmuring disciples? How about a healing of attitude, freeing them to accept the cost of discipleship? The will to see themselves not as random victims of a capricious and meaningless life, but as disciples of the one God who is actively redeeming the whole of life?

Where else do we meet seraphim? The story of the calling of Isaiah to become a prophet. Stationed above Yahweh’s throne are seraphim, winged serpents with the fire of holiness, fire both life-threatening and life-purifying. And one of those seraphs flew to the young Isaiah, holding a live coal from the altar, and with it the seraph touched the mouth of the young prophet and said, “Now! Now you are free to serve the one true God.”

Scholars think these seraphim are a holdover from ancient Egypt. Sure enough, the Hebrew immigrants have brought some old-time religion along with them. Maybe you’ll remember the image of a pharaoh wearing a headdress with a gold cobra rising above his forehead, ready to spit venom onto his enemies.

Man, this could go down well in Sunday School!

The point of the story is that we explore the healing power of God at work simultaneously in what threatens us most. Keep that thought.

Now we step into John’s Gospel, where we hear Jesus saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

This time, it’s some Greek we need. The verb we hear translated “lift up” also means “exalt”. Jesus, the Son of Man, will be lifted up on the cross in humiliating public execution; and at the very same moment, then and there he will be exalted as his servanthood kind of love fits the tumblers of the universe like a longlost key slipped into a lock, springing open the victory of true power casting down the mighty, lifting up the lowly and nonviolent.

The healing power of God is simultaneously at work in what threatens us most.

Jesus being lifted up makes eternal life possible for all who believe in him. Eternal life, John the Gospel writer’s favorite expression for the change of life accomplished by faith in Jesus Christ. Life no longer defined by blood, or the will of the flesh, or by human will, but life defined by God. Life in the unending presence of God, beginning now. Life as a child of God.

If I believe, my present life is changed by the gift of eternal life. If I do not believe, something perishes. I still exist (without believing), but Christ does not dwell in me, lost to me is the deepest opportunity of the present moment to leverage change, that mystical growth opened to me in baptism—that I grow into the full stature of Christ—remains hidden behind the door I will not open.

That closed door sums up the experience of Nicodemus, a distinguished elder of Israel who came secretly by night to hear Jesus teach. His story is told in the verses just before ours in John today, so it gives the context for the Gospel we hear.

Nicodemus comes so close to belief. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” He says right things, almost a creedal statement of belief, and he could be an emissary from a block of ecclesiastical types almost ready to march to the beat of Jesus’s drum, for he says “we”… “we know…”

But Jesus answers him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The mystified Nicodemus seems defeated. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? How can this be?”

Jesus, we know, is speaking about spiritual birth. Nicodemus shows his old religious training by hearing Jesus in a black-or-white sort of way, confusing the metaphor, resisting the mysticism. He has come under the secrecy of night. He doesn’t yet know how to come to the light. He doesn’t yet understand that the healing power of God is simultaneously at work in what threatens him.

Nicodemus’s story helps us approach the harsh message in our Gospel today: “Those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

Jesus’s closest disciples couldn’t believe, at first. Peter, for instance, hid in the far edges of the crowd that Good Friday, distancing himself from the danger on Golgotha, even denying that he knew the man Jesus.

Slowly, one by one, the disciples returned to that upper room where, one day not far off, the Spirit of God would blow in upon them and they would, by the fire of holiness burning on their brows, become apostles.

Their faith is heard in today’s passage from Ephesians, where we meet the certainty of the early Christians that God was lifting them up as an ensign to the world. “God has made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus… For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

A way of life lifted up to draw all people to him. A way of life threatening to the order and disorder of this world, a way of life simultaneously used by God to offer this world healing—this world, so loved by God as to give us Jesus.

Jesus, who asks us, just as he asked Nicodemus, to let go of what we know, to let go of the familiar and ingrained, in order to be reborn through what he himself has to offer, right now, freeing us to serve the one true God.

Jesus, who will not let us domesticate the radical newness of his Word, will not let his Good News be diminished by our murmurings in the face of what threatens us… but will use that very means to heal us.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Holy Anger

Scripture read on the 3rd Sunday in Lent includes Exodus 20:1-17, I Corinthians 1:18-25, and John 2: 13-22

Have you ever seen a stained glass window devoted to that scene in the life of our Lord, his overturning the tables of the money-changers, driving out the sheep and cattle? Do you imagine that Louis Comfort Tiffany ever designed such a window? I’ve never seen one. I’m going to guess that you haven’t, either.

What a shame. I think I’d be attracted to a church that had an appetite for art like that. Think of the message. Anger accepted here. We have a Savior who understands how you sometimes feel. Even what you sometimes do.

Maybe the message might be, Come and flex your muscles with us for justice in the world, starting with how we manage the affairs of the Church.

Let’s stay with this theme of holy anger. What do you say we aim some at the moguls and former high priests of high risk whose greed has led us into this time of trial? And if you’re reaching for your whip of cords, let me guess you might be looking for federal regulators who should have been minding the store—and for the old gang formerly in power who told them not to bother.

Is it tempting to consider also the vast number of pretty ordinary people who coveted their neighbors’ houses and decided to build or buy bigger ones? My guess is that we won’t judge them harshly. Their tables have been overturned. They’re suffering badly.

But I’ll bet we want to aim those whips at executives who have profited from oversized untimely bonuses while millions of lower-paid workers lose their jobs.

Can you get into this? It’s hard to stop. That may be one reason we consider anger to be beneath us. If we don’t keep it locked in the basement, it might take over the dining room and wouldn’t that be a mess?

Friday is my day to prepare Sunday’s sermon. Friday morning, as I read that day’s entry in Martin Smith’s challenging Lenten book A Season for the Spirit, listen to what I found there:

“If the thought of facing Jesus’ anger is troubling and repellent, that is probably a sign that we have trouble in giving a place to ‘the forceful one’ in our own inner society. What do we do with our aggression? Where is our anger? If we are not prepared to face our own aggression and bring it into contact with the forcefulness of Jesus, then this element of our humanity will be left unredeemed. Unredeemed, it will poison our lives and through us the lives of our neighbors.

“How did Jesus demonstrate that aggression can be holy? He showed that (it) can provide the energy for us to assert the primacy of love, to cut away all that is not love, to differentiate the important from the trivial, to provide the strength to separate the authentic from the false and pretentious…

“Often we are so afraid of (our anger) that we deny and suppress it behind false smiles. So it smoulders below like a fire deep down in a ship’s hold, with the fumes seeping out here and there, igniting now and then in nasty remarks and peevish moods. Or anger rejected and bottled up inside leaks out and eats away at our own self-esteem like a caustic, inducing depression. We endow others with our own unlived aggression. We become terribly hurt by others’ remarks because we inflate their anger with our own, which we are refusing to acknowledge and use. Or we allow anger, still disconnected from the love of God… to grab the reins and drive us in this direction and that, trampling others down on the way.

“We must love our capacity to be forceful, love our aggression, as God…loves it in Jesus. (This) means honestly expressing in prayer what actually does arouse our anger, including the way God seems to treat us. Only when we vent and name our anger can we be open to the purification, healing and redirection of our anger. This is a humiliating and messy business, because it compels us to recognize two things. First, how much energy we expend smothering the rage caused by past injuries, pretending that ‘it was nothing, really…’ and that we have no need of the healing and consolation of God. Second, the extent to which we pervert and trivialize the God-given energy of aggression. We fret and fume over minute frustrations, but as for the outrageous injustices in the world, in the church and in our own local communities that cry out before God for correction, we feel almost nothing beyond a vague sense that ‘there’s nothing I can do about it.’ A passionate God tries to stimulate and recruit our passion, and we resist by numbing and dissipating it. The absurdity is that we think we are being penitent as we confess to God in our prayers that we have been angry, when our real sin is our dogged refusal to let the Spirit arouse our anger in the causes of love and justice.”

I thank Martin Smith for carrying about a third of this sermon today. At this moment in our national and global life, it’s important that we claim and harness the energy of anger. Jesus used it to clear the temple, to confront his culture with its failure to fulfill the mind of God. Attacking its signature sin, the big business of religion as a supermarket for animal sacrifices allegedly pleasing to God and required for purity, Jesus dismantled a system that made the rich richer and the poor poorer. It had to have triggered his aggression, seeing peasants pay their next-to-last denarius to convert street money to temple money, then pay their last denarius to purchase a dove to sacrifice both its life and theirs. Each transaction lined the pockets of the rich, emptied the pockets of the poor. “Enough!” he cried.

This is good scripture for the year 2009.

And it is good scripture beside which to hear, later this morning, Thomas Mikelson spread before us the social witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cleansing the temple placed Jesus in the cross-hairs of his enemies. Confronting Jim Crow, both south and north, exposed Martin to the toxic aggression of the enemies of the civil rights movement. There could have been no such movement without holy anger, without quiet and peaceable people claiming their anger and declaring, “Enough!”

To what are we called to declare that today? What tables need overturning to free us to fulfill the mind of our maker?

We may find out, as each of us follows the lead of Jesus and dares to see his or her body as a temple of God, not a marketplace (as we have been taught to see ourselves, since childhood) but a sanctuary. A sanctuary.

--The long quotation in this sermon comes from Martin L. Smith's "A Season for the Spirit: Readings for the Days of Lent", Cowley Publications, 1991, pp. 60-61.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Ashamed of the Gospel?

Readings for the 2nd Sunday in Lent are Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; and Mark 8:31-38

True to my namesake, I stood by a parishioner’s hospital bed one day last week, thinking, “Gee, how can I read this Gospel, with Jesus giving a gloomy forecast of his own suffering? Don’t we need some uplift here?”

Fortunately, it took just a moment or two for it to dawn on me how exactly I was standing in the clogs of the fisherman. According to Matthew’s Gospel, that Peter said to Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! All this shall never happen to you!” And that Peter received the rebuke we heard today, which in The Message is paraphrased, “Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works.”

As I say, it took just about the pause of one deep breath for this Peter to come to his senses and recall what good news it was indeed to this dear person in her hospital bed that our Lord had undergone great suffering, rejection, even death, and then was raised from the dead. In fact, that is the heart of the Gospel—and for a brief moment I was ashamed of the Gospel. I thought I would prefer a more upbeat reading.

That would be at least the second time in a week that I had egg on my face. Actually, the first time it was ashes, and that would be last Sunday when, at Worship Outside the Box, I had demonstrated to the children the imposition of ashes which begins the Lenten experience. Before I called for a couple of volunteers, I thought I’d make the sign of the cross on my own forehead. Afterwards, I handed each of them a tissue to wipe off theirs—but completely forgot that I was still wearing mine.

And so I appeared before you, last Sunday, causing some curiosity… and a few remarks which at the moment made no sense to me at all. What did Chuck Alberti mean, when he asked if I’d washed my face since Wednesday?

That experience has reinforced my commitment to speak of Lent as a season for paying attention—to our own experience, to the people and life around us, and to God in all and above all. Now I need to practice what I preach.

And that brings me to Abraham and Sarah, pioneer human beings in whom God evidently found integrity and consistency. St. Paul called Abraham “the father of all of us,” and presumably, to a less patriarchal audience, would have called Sarah the mother of us all. “No distrust made them waver concerning the promise of God,” Paul reports.

What intrigues me (and fascinates Paul) about this couple from Ur in the Chaldees, believed to be the ancient progenitors of the nation Israel, is how they were chosen by God before there was a divine covenant or set of laws to determine them as righteous. They were righteous because God saw righteousness in them… which speaks volumes about how God sees us human beings.

They became exemplars, not of religious obedience to a code of purity, and not of patriotic obedience to a code of nationalism—there was neither church nor state in their story, for they were before such things. And it’s not even clear that they were chosen because they were good people. What Paul says is that it all depends on faith. And that’s not faith as a noun, but more as a verb: Abraham and Sarah were people of whom it continues to be said, “No distrust made them waver concerning the promise of God… being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.” They demonstrated the ability, the power, the commitment to trust God. They were faithing people.

And on that, says Paul, our life in Christ depends.

But notice how this bigger-than-life couple precedes the faith systems to which they gave their DNA. They are absolutely pivotal to the Old Testament, but they pre-dated Judaism. They are strong in the warp and weft of the New Testament, but they were assuredly not Christian. They are heroic figures in Islam, but can’t be called Muslims.

They are bigger-than-sectarian, outside-the-box exemplars that our ways are not God’s ways, our thoughts not God’s thoughts. They are walking advertisements that the promises of God are made more broadly across humanity than any one tradition can claim and franchise, and what God promises, because it rests on grace, can come to birth only in receptive trust.

Abraham and Sarah, claimed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, present the most radical potential for the finding of common ground. And that they are remembered for leaving their homeland, becoming dislocated migrants seeking a promised land, says about the common ground we may find in their legacy that it has to be held with open hands in trust, not grasped with clenched fist. This is as true about the common ground of land and boundaries, which must be shared, as it is true for the common ground of cultural and religious dialogue, which requires open minds. The first and most famous trait of righteousness shown by this ancient couple was their willingness to leave behind all that they found familiar and walk each step of their journey daring to trust God.

And in that they show a power needed worldwide in these years of global recession. Paul calls it hoping against hope. At the age of nearly one hundred, their hope was not about retirement, but engagement. At such an age, their hopes were not all about their bodies but about the heart and soul they heard required of them. Their age placed them near death, but their vocation was to give birth to a new creation. At the very time they could have hoped to be neatly settled in a continuing care facility, they refocused their hope on the next generation and became inventive pilgrims.

To fast-forward into the language of the Gospel, they denied themselves, took up their cross, and followed God, losing their life as they knew it, in order to play their part in saving a new world order.

Does all this sound just too grim? Not enough uplift here? Watch out…

The sign of victory we wear on the brow is not the dollar sign, cultural symbol of success and self-reliance. It is the sign of the cross, symbol of spiritual movement from aching loss (Good Friday) through forsaken absence (Holy Saturday) to astonishing new life (Easter Day). This Gospel pattern will train us now, if we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and, like Abraham and Sarah, hearts brave to trust the God whose covenant love actually thrives in change and upheaval, loss and gain, death and rebirth.

(I am grateful to Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for the language in my last paragraph, describing the movement from Good Friday to Easter Day, found in his February 11, 2009 letter to colleagues on the subject of preaching.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

On the Wild Side

This homily considers the story in Mark 1:9-15

Jesus is in the desert, a dry wilderness with here and there an oasis with some desert species of tree or shrub, and perhaps a spring. For forty days he will be there, led there, commanded to go there by the Spirit of God. At Jesus’s baptism, God has announced loud and clear how proud and pleased he is by Jesus—so this wilderness adventure is all about growing into that love.

This story is where Lent comes from. Lent, our own forty days of adventure, growing into the love of God.

And apparently it takes a wilderness to raise an adventure.

Barbara, our organist and choir director, tells me that her daughter, Andrea, will soon undertake a wilderness adventure in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Juniors at Holderness, the school she attends, are expected to complete an eleven-day experience in wilderness camping—four of those days in complete solitude.

Imagine: three days, four nights, no Ipod, no books, no magazines. Army-issue boots, a few matches, the right clothing, a tarp (no tent), and not another person to be seen for four days. A whistle is also part of the kit, in case of emergency (while out of sight, other campers are within hearing).

Four days, and the adventure is all about paying attention to every detail of life around you:

How the wind moves, and the weather
The birds and creatures, their sounds and silence
Textures, colors, smells, all become important
How you relate to things that would normally cause no interest, like branches
and stones and dew and tracks in the snow: (Are they speaking to you?)

And inside you? There’s the real adventure, to pay attention to the truth of what you’re experiencing:

Are you feeling the power of all that is wild and beyond your control?
You’re alone: what do you do with your solitude?
Can you let yourself feel your fear, can you learn from it?
Who are you talking to, with no one there?
But you’re in a conversation,aren’t you? With whom?
Is that some part of you? (Is that God?)
When you walk through wilderness, you pass things by. When you live in
wilderness, can you feel yourself becoming one with that enormous life
all around you?
And how long before you’re in an argument? With yourself? With voices and
ideas and memories that have come along with you?

Now imagine being in the wild, like Andrea in the White Mountains, not four days but forty. That’s the great adventure wherein Jesus’s power is made sharp and pure by testing. He doesn’t run, he doesn’t hide. He pays attention, full time, to all that is around him and all that is within him.

That’s what we need him to do for us. And that’s how we get the Savior we have, precisely this way, by his wilderness testing. It’s how his powers were claimed, purified, focused.

That’s worth remembering, when we’re out in the thin places of our own wilderness.

There’s where our Lent of forty days comes from, and while ours cannot be as big an adventure as our Lord’s, his story tells us what Lent is for: paying attention in fresh ways to the vast life around us, and the enormous life within us. Listening for God. Not hiding, not running, from testing. Growing stronger in the power of love.